By Martin Thomas
The lion gave voice. It was more like a squeak or a groan than a roar, but it was the lion rising to its feet and holding forth for the first time in decades.
In a fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Bournemouth on Wednesday 1 October, five big trade unions, CWU (post and telecom), GMB and TGWU (both general unions), Amicus (engineering, electrical, scientific-technical, financial), and Unison (public services) organised a joint meeting to announce a campaign to 'put Labour back into the party'.
As Tony Woodley, general secretary elect of the TGWU, noted, it was "a unique meeting" and "could be a historic turning point". It has no precedent, unless it be the unions' move in 1931 to pull the Labour Party away from the then Labour prime minister Ramsey MacDonald and chancellor Philip Snowden when they cut the dole.
Unions have been pulled along with the activist left in the local Labour Parties at other times - notably in 1979-82 - but scarcely ever before have they defined themselves as leading a political struggle. It is a struggle not really of left against right, but of labour against the propensity of New Labour to "show more concern for the employers and the City than for its own supporters", as Woodley put it.
In 1931 MacDonald and Snowden were quickly isolated, and went over to open alliance with the Tories. Today it is different - a matter of timid, slow beginnings rather than the decisiveness of 1931.
What comes of it will depend on whether activists can use the general secretaries' cautious moves to go out and organise rank and file local Labour Representation Committees with real life, and whether socialists with clear ideas can be regrouped within those committees.
The activist left, on the whole, has not registered the importance of the unions' moves. None of the left newspapers other than Solidarity were sold at the 1 October meeting. The only activist-left contribution in the brief discussion period allowed at the meeting was from CWU executive member Maria Exall, who got strong applause for her argument for organised coordination of the unions' political efforts at rank-and-file local level.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus-AEEU, opened his speech by asking the audience: "Do you realise what an effort has gone into tonight, to get the leaders of the big unions together on one table?"
"The question now", he said, "is, do we give up, or do we get on with it?"
Elsewhere Woodley and others (such as former ASLEF general secretary Mick Rix) have called for a new Labour Representation Committee, a new version of the coalition of the more advanced unions (only a fraction at first, representing 353,000 out of the TUC's then 1,200,000 affiliated members) and the activist left groups (SDF and ILP) which in 1900 pioneered the unions' political break from Liberalism towards independent working-class political representation.
It looked as if the deal to get all the general secretaries together on Wednesday was that the more vigorous ones, like Woodley, would abstain from launching definite organisational initiatives or repeating the actual words 'Labour Representation Committee', and in return the more timid general secretaries, like Dave Prentis of Unison, would come on board.
Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, was the first speaker. "The Government is too close to big business", he said, "and losing touch with the labour movement".
Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB, devoted his speech to a five-point policy platform, but a very weak one. The fifth point was the only half-bold one: "Boost health and social housing. End foundation hospitals. Build more council homes by direct investment, without PFI. Suspend council housing transfers to other owners, including 'arm's-length management organisations'."
The other four were:
1. No more presidential politics;
2. Economic stabilisation and revitalised regions;
3. An active and fair employment policy;
4. Reshape education and training.
Through such measures, said Curran, "we can create a radical third-term manifesto together", 'we' being the union leaders and the New Labour tops.
Curran's specific economic demands, under his second point, were for "people with industrial experience" to be appointed to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, and for Britain's subsidies to industry to be raised to European Union average levels. No mention of privatisation or renationalisation or taxing the rich. No mention of anti-union laws, either, unless "common employment rights and social provision across the EU" is meant to be a subtle way of getting the idea in. Top-up fees, SATs, comprehensive education, war, asylum rights - none of that mentioned.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said that for him the "starting point" was the unions' "right and responsibility to be involved in policy formulation".
"At previous conferences the unions have been split off and played off against each other. It hasn't happened this time. We [the general secretaries] know exactly how each other will vote".
He was at pains to explain that "we are not oppositionists". Both Prentis and Hayes opposed moderately-worded 'reclaim the Labour Party' motions at their unions' conferences this summer, saying that they would challenge the Blairites in due course and in their own way but the motions went too far.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus-AEEU, gave a knockabout speech. "I didn't know the Prime Minister drove a Reliant Robin. It's the only car I know that doesn't have a reverse gear".
He told the story of an event where a Labour Government minister was speaking to employers in the morning, and trade unionists from the same industry in the afternoon. One Amicus activist smuggled himself into the employers' session, to hear the minister asking the bosses what could the Government do for them, how could it help, please let it know what they wanted. In the afternoon the same minister told the trade unionists that things were not easy, they could expect no favours, and so on.
Simpson was careful to stress that "we know we can't live in utopia. Our activists demand we [the general secretaries] stand for this or that platform, and we can't always deliver. The Government governs for the country, and it can't always do what we want". But, he said: "We do want to know that it is wearing our colours and playing on our side".
In the meeting's only mention of the severe damage done to Tony Blair's standing by recent months, Simpson disavowed any interest in taking advantage. "I'm not interested in arguing as to whether Brown or Blair should lead the Labour Party".
Tony Woodley had been disappointed that Tony Blair's speech to the conference on Tuesday 30th failed to mention "one important word - 'trade unions'". "This is the first Labour Government in history to see the gap between rich and poor widen". Social rights are weaker than elsewhere in the European Union. "Only here can workers be sacked by text message. Only here, in this country, is solidarity a dirty word".
"As unions, our message to the party is very clear. We are not going away. We are not going to be shut out, and we are not going to be shut off".
One of the few speakers allowed from the floor asked about a rival, pro-Blairite, trade-union initiative, from Richard Rosser of TSSA, Bill Connor of USDAW, and Roger Lyons of Amicus-MSF. "Wouldn't it be better to unite the two union efforts?" Woodley was firm. "Some individuals think the realms of political patronage live on. They'll be swatted aside".
All the platform speakers talked about reviving union delegacies to Constituency Labour Parties. They know they face problems. Rather than enthuse about how they would now beat the Blairites with union help, the two Constituency Labour Party delegates who spoke from the floor expressed pleasure on the grounds that this move would bring at least some people to currently-deserted meetings.
Unlike in 1931, the unions face a 'Labour' Party where MacDonalds and Snowdens, or worse, dominate not only the top leadership, but also the party's machine of spin-doctors and 'advisers', and, on the evidence, a layer of the individual constituency membership too. Billy Hayes noted that the conference decision that same day to get Constituency Labour Parties the right to choose four motions to be debated at each year's Labour conference had squeezed through on a union majority, with most CLP delegates voting against themselves having more say.
"You do not know the pressure delegates have been under not to vote for the foundation hospitals composite", said Dave Prentis. "They have been pulled in and told that if they vote for the composite they will never be allowed to be delegates again.
"A lot of the constituencies are moribund. A lot of meetings which are said to choose delegates and motions never actually take place".
One index of the problems was the arrangements for the fringe meeting itself. Outside the hall was an ante-room where everyone attending was served with free sandwiches and wine or coffee by hotel staff. The Labour conference fringe was very different up to less than ten years ago, but I am told by regular attenders that this is now standard.
The meeting drew about 200 people, but few were young. Quite a lot left straight after the platform speeches. Were they hurrying to another meeting, as they would have been doing ten years ago? No, no, no, an aficionado told me: they'd be going to their dinner.
The platform was vague about how unions would be 're-engaged' at Constituency Labour Party level, other than the word being passed down from the general secretaries' offices. But Billy Hayes made an important point. We must, he said, work to get the unions back into the Labour Party at constituency level, but that has to be linked to campaigns on specific issues.
An abstract recommendation to union branches to send more delegates cannot bring much response, if the activist sees only the prospect of being one extra attender in a dim and impotent meeting. But if unions organise and coordinate locally, and get together to send a body of twelve or twenty new delegates to their local Labour Party, linking that move with their public campaigning on some issue like privatisation, then that will be different.
The union leaders plainly know that they are steering their train up a very steep hill, a counter-gradient built up over nine years of Blair's 'New Labour'.
They are not taking a run at the slope, building up prior momentum to overcome the counter-forces. They have chosen to start with the speed control set to dead slow. What makes this still very important is that the train is a very weighty one and - inasmuch as it constitutes the actual organised working class-one without which no large progress is possible.
Activists should do all we can to develop a 'Labour Representation Committee' movement, and demand that other unions, notably the railworkers', join in. We should also work to involve activists from non-affiliated unions (PCS, NATFHE, sections of Unison) in local Labour Representation Committees.
Only pollyanna could think that this union initiative is already adequate, or that we can complacently bowl along with it while it smoothly accelerates, or that socialists can responsibly neglect outside-of-Labour work with new young activists, especially in the vital new anti-capitalist movements, or even that we can now rule out involvement in independent working-class election challenges to the entrenched Blairites.
Not only is there the problem of the unions' caution, but there are also more general limitations to keep in mind. Though this, that, or many unions can and must be won to socialist leadership, the trade unions as such cannot, by their very nature as bargaining bodies with a membership mostly passive most of the time, be the spearhead of socialist politics. What is needed is a campaign to restore working-class political representation by way of revived political self-assertion by unions coupled with organised socialist political initiative and a drive to democratise and build rank-and-file movements in the trade unions.
There are no guarantees that this can be done. All the general secretaries have done is open a door. But, union general secretaries being what they are, that is all that any sober activist could expect them to do.